Friday, December 3, 2021
Home Education NEET: A Failure of Epic Proportions

NEET: A Failure of Epic Proportions

Sadat Hussain*

NEW DELHI—In the last few weeks, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin has been actively pushing to abolish the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) in the state.

CM’s move, however, has come very late. It came when several students demanding its withdrawal had committed suicide. A 19-year-old Dhanush from Salem committed suicide, and Kanimozhi from Ariyalur died when the Assembly adopted the Bill to dispense off with the exam. A few days ago, a student K Anu from Chengalpattu, who attempted suicide in September, succumbed to her injuries. 

Yet, many, including those belonging to the ruling dispensation at the national level & the opposition in the state (such as H Raja of the Tamil Nadu BJP), are vehemently pro-NEET. It was the suicide of S. Anitha in September 2017, who had scored 1176/1200 in her 12th standard exams, that truly sparked off a movement against NEET. 

Now, with DMK ministers and representatives meeting other opposition chief ministers, including KT Rama Rao, Pinarayi Vijayan, Naveen Patnaik, and Jagan Mohan Reddy, bring them on-board the issue is picking up steam at the national level. Last month, the DMK also filed a petition in the Madras High Court through Dr Ezhilan, MLA, challenging Section 57 of the 42nd Amendment under which education was moved from the State list to the Concurrent list.

Justice AK Rajan Committee Report: Some Points

The Justice AK Rajan Committee report does interesting reading, raising questions around federalism, standardized testing, bias, rural-urban divide in healthcare, and Chapter 8 of the report, the contentious term called ‘merit’. While federalism has been discussed in the public sphere, some of the legal questions that the report has raised are public health and hospitals being a state subject and the need to admit rural students to medical colleges, mainly to administer and work in hospitals in rural areas. Such students do not find any place in the NEET ‘merit’ lists. Secondly, the report has exposed the false claim of ‘merit’ as measured only in numbers and as something that backward class students are seen to lack by quoting Jagdish Saran vs Union of India. The quote says, “If potential for rural service or aptitude for rendering medical attention among backward people is a criterion of merit-and it, undoubtedly, is in a land of sickness and misery, neglect and penury, wails and tears-then, surely, belonging to a university catering to a deprived region is a plus point of merit. Excellence is composite and the heart and its sensitivity are as precious in the case of educational values…Merit cannot be measured in terms of marks alone, but human sympathies are equally important.” While backward-class and marginalized students are seen as lacking ‘merit’ due to their backgrounds, in many cases, NEET has admitted students to private seats with barely pass-marks, as quoted by the report. As the report mentions, “[There are] signs of changing profile of the doctors between the pre-NEET and post-NEET period, creating a generation of doctors and teaching faculties from mainly the privileged communities- the affluent, the creamy, the urban genre who are well away from the grass root realities of the diverse social structure.” (p 110). 

Manufacturing a Class System 

The most dramatic and revealing data of the report can be seen in the rise & rise of CBSE, English medium, and private school students cracking the exam, as well as the mass percentage of ‘repeaters’ and those who have taken coaching. Due to the introduction of NEET, the total number of HSC (state board) 12th class students fell to 779940 in the year 2020. The number has slipped to 12.7%, with a loss in student size of 113,322, between 2017 and 2020, in the post-NEET period, from a high. The exploitative coaching industry has made it near-impossible for a student to pass such an exam independently. They also know that students & their parents are also well-aware that clearing the exam is near-impossible without coaching. The coaching industry preys on this fact without any hesitation, offering ‘crash courses’ and ‘repeaters’ courses, targeted at those who have not cleared the exam in the first attempt and do not wish to waste another year of their lives before entering a very long medical college journey as it is. ‘The percent of repeaters who have secured admissions in MBBS programme rose to 71.42% in 2020- 21 from a meagre 12.47% in 2016-17.’ (p 23). On average, the report calculates, such repeaters Rs 10 lakh just for coaching. The coaching industry produces a situation where the ‘uncoached’ are at risk and are disadvantaged. The coaching industry, already flourishing in JEE and other exams, has grown further, now generating around Rs. 5750 crore. Additionally, NEET does not measure aptitude but merely ensures that students memorize material in a short period, taking a break from building upon and testing the ‘continuum of knowledge acquisition’ that an ideal vision of pedagogy proposes. 

False Claims of Efficiency

Supporters of NEET have argued that rather than relying on board exams, entrance exams offer students a ‘second chance’ of sorts to enter into premium institutions rather than being limited by a single performance-based entirely on rote. However, the issue correctly raised by the report is that rather than genuinely being a second chance, competitive exams such as NEET merely become ‘double hardship’ because they are neither radically different from the formats offered in school exams. To make matters worse, they are not accessed more-or-less equitably in the same way that school-leaving exams can be taken even by private students or those attending government schools and schools in rural areas. Unlike UCAT and MCAT in the United States that offer unique and consistent ways to measure aptitude, “the NEET seems to duplicate the Board exams (both state Boards and CBSE), as it assesses the students using the same standardized criteria-referenced test as used by the Board exams.” (p 20). This means that not only does NEET not offer a dramatic change from the boards, it also defeats its own objective of replacing duplication and repetitive exams by virtue of it being repetitive in itself. Thus, NEET does not fulfill any of the objectives with which it was set up – increase in quality (many students are securing private NEET seats with merely pass marks); transparency (there is little information in the public realm of the reliability, bias-free nature or validity of the exam, unlike the SATs in the United States that were heavily tested and found flawed); removal of capitation fee (private medical institutions charge up to Rs 30 lakh per annum), and avoiding multiple exams.

The Way Ahead for a Broken Healthcare System

Thus, the dilemma remains – is an entrance through board examination marks a fair & just way of going about it? Is it better to have state-level entrance exams? However, compared to NEET, the report shows clear data that admissions through HSc marks during the pre-NEET period ensured entry of quality and meritorious students. This is a much broader debate requiring digging away at the deep rot set within the examination system at every level. But the mandate given to Justice AK Rajan was to investigate into NEET, and the report answers in unflinching terms, with solid data that cannot be denied, that NEET is not an exam free of bias in any sense. There can be no compromise with the future of students and with the education system as a whole. As the report reflects, almost all the goals of the National Medical Commission Act 2019 – “accessibility to quality and affordable medical education, equitable and universal healthcare, transparent assessment of medical institutions, maintenance of the medical register, ethical standards in medical services, and a grievance mechanism” (p 6) – remain unfulfilled promises. The pandemic ought to have taught us that healthcare is only accessible when it is for all and when it is affordable. NEET pushes out of the healthcare system genuine aspirants before they have even stepped one foot into it, thus putting paid to any hopes of reforming the system, let alone overhauling it. 

Stratification in the Indian education system, much like in the broader Indian society, is a fact. This was one of the reasons given behind standardized, pan-Indian testing such as NEET. But what law-makers failed to realize was that they were putting the cart before the horse. Without addressing the stratification of government-private; CBSE-ICSE-state board; English-Tamil/any other language and so on, to introduce a pan-India exam with syllabus heavily borrowing from CBSE means to alienate, push out and spell doom for the many marginalized students who aspire to change not just their own lives or that of their immediate community’s, but that of India’s broken, ravaged medical system. 

As the report mentions, “The relation between achievements in standardized entrance exams and socioeconomic and other demographic disadvantages is one of the most widely replicated findings in educational research. Especially, a country where the society is graded hierarchically with social inequality and unequally segregated in terms of economic conditions, level of income, level of education, occupation, living standards, cultures, linguistic status, and geographical location, a standardized common entrance exam like NEET is more likely to exacerbate its reflection of all such inequities than to attenuate them.” (p 25). It is often said that education allows students to break hierarchies and challenge them, allowing for social mobility and growth. However, the education system is equally capable of mirroring inequality, and NEET has done that precisely, for example, by way of the NEET-SS (Super Specialty) and 50% PG seats being brought under the All-India quota, which denies the greater percentage of reservation being offered to OBC students in some states such as Tamil Nadu.

It has been nothing but a death sentence for many young minds in Tamil Nadu and beyond who thought that they could make it despite knowing that they did not have the resources to access expensive coaching and books like their peers. Opposition leaders, social activists, and civil society movements would do well to take up this issue on a wider level beyond the state of Tamil Nadu, not just to repeal NEET but to open the can of worms that are the Indian education & healthcare systems and change them for the better as a whole.

(The author is a research scholar at the Zakir Hussain Centre for Educational Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

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